Since 2014, scientists at Yale have been working to bring the brains of dead pigs back to life. They've finally published the results, and the experiment has important and frightening implications for the ethics of potentially reanimating human brains. The process uses a device called BrainEx, which is sometimes called "brain in a bucket," to reanimate the organs.
Although the scientists didn't restore consciousness to the pigs' brains, they believe it's possible. Intellectuals in the field of ethics worry what the findings could mean for humankind; they speculate reanimating the brain of a person could lead to a hellish existence in which the brain is conscious but can't interact with the world.
If A Brain Regained Consciousness, It Could Be Like Spending Life In A Sensory Deprivation Tank
Neuroscientist Nenad Sestan, who led the BrainEx team at Yale, announced brain reanimation is likely possible in any species. Professionals in the field of ethics raised questions over the ramifications brain reanimation could have on humans should the technology advance far enough. Ethics and philosophy lecturer Benjamin Curtis believes a disembodied human brain would be a "living hell" and "fate worse than death" should it experience consciousness during reanimation. The team at Yale assured their peers that the reanimated pig brains were living but not conscious. However, Curtis says:
Even if your conscious brain were kept alive after your body had died, you would have to spend the foreseeable future as a disembodied brain in a bucket, locked away inside your own mind without access to the sense that allow us to experience and interact with the world. In the best case scenario you would be spending your life with only your own thoughts for company.
Ethics professionals wonder if a reanimated brain with consciousness could be like living inside a sensory deprivation tank with no senses or ability to communicate. Worryingly, the US Food and Drug Administration might lack authority to regulate the "brain in a bucket" experiment because their domain is protecting people, and potentially reanimated brain tissue isn't considered human.
Scientists Restored Circulation In Pig Brains For 36 Hours
Yale scientists collected between 100 to 200 brains from recently slaughtered pigs. The brains were gathered within a four-hour period of time. Scientists restored circulation, but not consciousness, to the brains using artificial blood, as well as a system of pumps and heaters. The study marked a breakthrough in circulating oxygen to blood vessels in the brain to keep cells alive. The brains remained hooked up to the BrainEx system for 36 hours; during this time, scientists observed no signs of consciousness.
If Technology Advances Far Enough, Human Brains Could Be Kept Medically Alive
Although the Yale team only worked on pigs, Professor Nenad Sestan speculates that any mammal's brain should yield the same results in reanimation experiments. He also stated the technology of the tubes, pumps, and artificial blood need improvement before scientists experiment on human brains. Scientists previously conducted similar experiments on guinea pigs. According to the MIT Technology Review, this is the first time it's been successful "with a large mammal, without using cold temperatures, and with such promising results."
BrainEx Could Lead To Breakthroughs In Brain Disease Treatments
Many scientists saw the breakthrough in brain reanimation as a way to study the "live" brain in a laboratory setting without the ethical dilemma of keeping a person alive for experiments. Anna Devor, the head of the University of California, San Diego's brain-imaging lab, hopes to research treatments for strokes and heart attacks through BrainEx studies. She speculates individuals in comas could be led back to an active, conscious state when the technology advances.